Cosco Busan Health Advisory

SAN FRANCISCO — NOAA OR&R Health and Safety, part of the Unified Command, is releasing the following health advisory:

Public Health Concerns, IFO 380

IFO 380 is a heavy fuel oil used primarily to propel ships. It is a mixture of mostly heavy fuel with some lighter fuel fractions. When spilled , the lighter fractions evaporate within a short time (a few hours) leaving behind the heavier and less volatile components of the fuel oil.

Public health concerns are routinely expressed in spills where the general public may come in contact with residues of the spill. NOAA Office of Response and Restoration, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have discussed these concerns and addressed them on a number of occasions. Below is a summary of the main concerns, and a public advisory for beaches cleaned after an oil spill.

Public exposure to oil spill residues

Possible human exposure addressed here assumes that the beaches were inspected, declared clean and only then were open to the public.

Inhalation hazard

Inhalation hazard of volatile organic compounds (VOC) from weathered fuel oil in open spaces is not considered a human health hazard. IFO 380 contains relatively low concentration of VOC when fresh. Days or weeks after the oil is spilled and exposed to air, the VOC concentration will typically be much below the level of concern. In all likelihood, VOC concentrations near highways or in cities is higher.

Skin contact

Weathered fuel oil contains large petroleum compounds that have low vapor pressure (they do not evaporate readily). Some of these compounds are polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), some of which may be carcinogenic (cancer causing) after prolonged exposure (years). Skin contact with the oil should be avoided, and if it occurs the skin should be washed with soap and water, mineral oil, baby oil, or any other safe and widely used cleaning method.

The same caution should be exercised with tar balls commonly found in many beaches in the US and around the world.

For most people brief skin contact with heavy fuel oil or tar balls would not be a problem. A small fraction of the population may be sensitive to oil and its products, and skin contact may cause skin problems, usually a skin rash.

Swimming in sheen

Swimming in a visible oil sheen should be avoided. If exposure occurs, wash the body with soap and water. A light transparent sheen and even silver sheens are not regarded as a significant health hazard by CDC, NOAA, and others.

Sulfur content

Elemental sulfur may be present in some crude oils and refined petroleum products. Skin contact with sulfur in the oil is not a concern.


IFO 380 has a negligible amount (a fraction of a percent) of benzene to begin with, and after it is spilled, the benzene evaporates within a short period of time.

Public advisory

This public advisory was recommended by NOAA and CDC.

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